I can clearly remember the first time my brain registered the juiciness of a nectarine and its heavenly scent. It was summer and unusually hot. I was about 3 or 4 years old and me and my mother, the lady next door and her son Sam who had the same age, had walked quite a distance to a park where we could play. After we had played a while, Sam and I were each given an unusually large nectarine – mostly because our hands were very small. They came out of a brown paper bag, and I can still recall the sound of the bag, and the scent that came next when it was presented to me to pick my fruit. I remember that I smelled the skin of the fruit, looked at it, turned it around and was then handed a piece of white kitchen paper to catch the juice that was about to drip from my chin and hands. I investigated the skin between my fingers, the texture of the fruit. I recall the bitterness of the magenta red stone as I was trying to get the last of the flesh from it….
It is not a coincidence that I chose to write about Queen cakes today. If you’ve read the papers and watched the news, or if you are a royalist, then you know today the Queen of England celebrates her 90th birthday. This makes her the world’s oldest-reigning monarch and the longest reigning monarch in English history. Queen Victoria was the previous record holder with her 63 years and seven months. So Queenie has every reason to be smug and have a big party – which is a giant street picnic on the Mall (the strap of wide street in front of Buckingham palace) in june. Getting a ticket for it was near impossible to my regret, because this was a celebration I would have been happy to buy a new hat for, bunting I already have aplenty. So if you’re reading this Your Majesty… is there room for one more? I’ll throw in a book!
But let’s talk about these Queen cakes. They are little cakes, and they started popping up in English cookery books in the 18th century. When reading the several recipes from the 18th to the 20th century I have in original cookery books, they remind me of a little cake I grew up with in Belgium. However, the recipe was slightly different as the Belgian cakes were flavoured with a little vanilla or almond essence, while Queen cakes are flavoured with mace, orange flower water, rose water and lemon depending on the date of the recipe. The Belgian cakes also look more like Madeleines, but they both have currants in them and the use of vanilla or almond essence is of course a slightly more ‘modern’ way to flavour bakes.
As with many English dishes, the Queen cakes come with their own dedicated cake pans. These were produced in the 19th century and depictions of them can be found in at least two books that I know of, one I own. 18th century recipes remain silent about the tins they should be baked in, but it is very possible that the then fashionable mince pie tins would have been used, leaving them without a need to create new tins….
Let me share with you a recipe from Pride and Pudding, my debut book that was festively launched in London’s Borough Market two weeks ago. There is also good news if you haven’t ordered the book yet! The Amazon editorial team has not only included Pride and Pudding in their ‘Books of the Month’ – this week it is also part of their ‘Deal of the Week’ which comes with a 50% discount only this week. (Get it here >) Meaning it will only set you back a tenner! It looks like sales are going splendid as I haven’t seemed to have lost my spot in the first 10 of the top 100 Bestsellers. As an author you do fear no one will buy your book. As do you fear bad reviews and negativity. So if you have a moment and you like the book, Amazon reviews do make a difference.
Now back to the actual order of the day. Cabinet pudding was a favourite on Victorian tables, the first recipes for it appeared in the early 19th century, though similar puddings had been made long before then. It is also sometimes called Newcastle pudding, diplomat pudding or Chancellor’s pudding, though the connection with politics isn’t clear. Recipes also vary. There are theories about the name but none seemed to hold much truth to them….
Yesterday, 11 april, I was asked to come on the BBC One Breakfast television program to talk about the history of rice pudding in light of the sudden craze for rice pudding – and that I have just written Pride and Pudding, a whole book about pudding. So how has rice pudding got itself back on our menu’s and in our hearts?
Rice pudding now as its own restaurant in Manhattan, New York dedicated to rice pudding – called ‘Rice to Riches’. The BBC journalist contacting me told me that Waitrose executive chef, Jonathan Moore, said that after visiting Manhattan’s rice pudding-only shop recently, Jason Atherton’s Michelan star restaurant, Pollen Street Social, and Berner’s Tavern in London have both re-invented the classic dessert. He also said sweet, savoury and embellished versions are becoming more ‘extreme’, with options at The Rice Cream Shoppe in Greenwich Village including gluten free and vegan versions. Waitrose also reported that sales of rice pudding have risen by 8% year on year.
I’m sure that in this modern day and age with dishes that look like works of art, we are all craving for something real and honest. Something which just isn’t pretending to be more than it is. Something so humble it conjures up memories of your nan, your mum or the auntie who made it especially when you were visiting. I have faint memories of my mum making rice pudding and I can remember the impatience for it to cool off and develop that glorious yellow skin which was really, the best part of the pud….
If you have visited the city of Bath, nestled in a green valley with its Roman baths, elegant Georgian townhouses and impressive circus, you might have noticed that there are two famous buns in town. Both are competing to be the oldest, most authentic, and most valuable to the city’s heritage. The Sally Lunn and the Bath Bun – they both even have their own tea room in town. Of course the notion that one of these buns is more important than the other is bollocks. At the end of the day, it’s just something to spread your butter on. I’m far more interested in both of these buns history than I am in their importance.
One bun maker claimed that the Bath bun was just simply a Sally Lunn which was slightly changed and then given the name Bath Bun for the tourists. A rather simplistic way of looking at it, but it has happened to other foods in the past. Of course in this case we are talking about two entirely different buns.
What a difference a bun makes
We know that during the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, set up by Prince Albert, 934.691 Bath buns were sold to the public. This shows they were either popular, or they were the best option! According to bun legend people remarked that the Bath bun sold in London was not exactly like the one sold in Bath and soon Bath buns in London were renamed London buns. However, mentions for London buns can be found 20 years before the Great Exhibition. So I’m fairly sure we are again talking about two different buns. To confuse things even more is that in Australia a Chelsea bun is known as a London bun.
The Sally Lunn which I will get to in another posting, is a light bun with a nice dome shaped top, it looks like a brioche but is less rich and not sweet at all. It is known since 1776. The Bath bun used to be a Bath cake in the 18th century. But although it was called cake, it was definitely treated as a bun, which according to Elizabeth Raffald The Experienced English Housekeeper, 1769 should be the size of a French roll and sent in hot for breakfast. Bath resident and cookery author Martha Bradley, gave a recipe in her book in 1756 entitled ‘Bath seed Cake’. Over the course of the 18th century eggs were added to the batter making the buns richer. In Andre Simon’s ‘Cereals: A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy’ from 1807 the recipe instructs the cook to:
Rub 1 lb. of butter into 2 lb. of fine flour; mix in it 1 lb. of caraway comfits, beat well 12 eggs, leaving out six whites, with 6 spoonfuls of new yeast, and the same quantity of cream made warm; mix all together, and set it by the fire to rise; when made up, strew comfits over them.
Jane Austen was a fan of Bath buns and promised to stuff her face with them if her sister Cassandra would not be joining her for a visit to Paragon that May….
When I was a little girl my parents and I used to travel around Hungary in the summer. I can still remember the warm climate, and the little dresses I wore, many of which I have in a shoe box upstairs. What I also remember is the Bed and Breakfast, back then called ‘Zimmer frei’ in Hungary, which was run by an old couple. The woman looked a lot like my aunt and the man I can’t remember much. Their house was large for Hungary and by a main road, not far from a little restaurant by the river Danube where I always ate a very good omelette for supper.
Our time with the old couple was like staying with your grandparents, sure communication was complicated, they spoke a little German, so did my parents, and I as a four year old strangely enough spoke a good word of German too. They were loving people and love can be shown without the language barrier. Each day we entered our room, the old lady surprised us with a large stone bowl of the most plump cherries I have ever seen. As a child, and a picky eater, those cherries were some kind of heaven. Food I knew, and was so expensive at home that I could never really eat so many that my fingers would be stained in cherry juice.
And every day a bowl appeared, and every day we were greeted by the most loving smiles and gestures by these two wonderful people.
Two years after our last visit to the old couple’s Zimmer Frei we decided to do a detour and stay with them for a couple of nights. I requested it especially because I was eager to see my Hungarian grandparents as they had become to be for me. My parents too had never encountered such kindness and were eager to stay there again too.
So we drove to the rather large Hungarian house and as we parked the car I ran towards the door where the old lady – she must have been in her early seventies – was sitting in her chair.
But while I was running towards her the first thing I noticed was the anxious look in her eyes, and then the dress that she wore. As before she always wore granny clothes, now she was wearing a black embroidered dress with a deep decollete and very large earrings.
Anxious as she was, but really happy to see us, she told my parents that she would love it if we would stay but that she was no longer a Zimmer Frei since her husband had died the year before.
I wondered what the young girls were doing there if she wasn’t offering lodgings anymore, and somehow, while she was showing us to our room and I saw how the house had changed and lost all its granny appeal, I knew. I knew without without having the knowledge of years.
Heartbroken and realising that there might not be a bowl of cherries in our room each day, and hurt by the uncomfortable anxious look in my Hungarian grandma’s eyes we said we’d go for dinner and then come back to decide if we would stay.
The granny had tears in her eyes, and I felt like she was holding on to the summers and the bowls of cherries as much as I was doing. But those times were gone. The light had gone out in the rather large Hungarian house. It was replaced by sorrow, regret, and a need for survival.
So we ate an omelette at the restaurant by the river, and my parents gave me the choice on whether to stay at the granny’s house. Too young to understand what was happening at the house, but old enough to feel there was something wrong, I told them that I felt that it wasn’t right for us to stay there.
So we drove back to the granny’s house, and said our goodbyes, granny still trying to convince us we were so very welcome. But I was feeling so very sad. I could not understand what had happened and somehow I knew that by staying we would not only make her happy, we would also maker her very sad.
She had made her choice, and there would be no more bowls of cherries.
I hope she was at peace at the end of her life, so very long ago.
In her memory I have prepared this cherry tart, inspired by 18th century tarts, some of which you’ll find in my upcoming book. It’s a perfect tart to make when you have leftover sponge cake, that way you don’t need to bake a cake especially. The tart has a pleasant texture, though not like the tarts you are probably used to. Let me know if you’ve tried it!
What you need
- 180 g white flour
- 100g cold butter
- 20 g icing sugar
- tiny pinch salt
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tbsp of cold water
- 250 ml cream
- 3 egg yolks
- a blade of mace
- a stick of cinnamon
- 1tbsp of raw cane sugar
- Sponge cake, preferably stale
- 2 tbsp of brandy (optional)
- a punnet of cherries
- 2 tbsp of unsalted butter – or bone marrow
- 22-24 sized pie pan or plate
When I tell people about my passion for historical dishes, there are always those who look at me with disbelief and some amusement. They claim those ancient dishes were made of rotting meat masked with an abundant use of spices, or stodgy pottage, all eaten with the hands like barbaric creatures. It can’t be good, it can’t be imaginative, it just can’t be …
The theory that food in the Middle Ages was highly spiced to mask the flavour of rotting meat has been discarded as pure nonsense in the last ten years. Those who were served spiced dishes were privileged, those cooking with it were the master cooks to kings and queens. People of status that not only could afford this immense luxury, but also had a good supply of fresh meat and fish from their estates and beyond.
Our ancestors – of the elite – had a good understanding about spices, and how to combine them. Those flavour combinations would often taste peculiar to us. Not at all in a wrong way, but in a way that you realise it is a flavour sensation you have never tasted before.
This brings me to how tastes have changed.
Today everything is usually either sweet, salty or spicy. Bitter is making a modest comeback and sour too, but these flavours are seldom combined in our ‘modern’ European cuisine. It is even so that a lot of our foods are processed in factories which add flavour essences to make the food taste the same every time you prepare it. Of course this doesn’t happen when you cook from scratch, but it is an unfortunate fact that people in the UK buy a lot of ready meals. It is a trend that has luckily not taken off in Belgium, but it is very possible we’re not far behind. Joanna Blytham recently published a book about these practices in food processing factories, and she rings an alarm bell and employs you to smell your food, to taste, and realise the smells and tastes are not from natural ingredients. This is an evolution, when more people eat processed food, they get an idea about how tomato tastes, and how a beef stew should taste. It goes so far that when those people taste the real thing, they can’t take the sourness of a real tomato, the texture of the skin, and they find their own beef stew too bland and wonder where the flavour of the ready meal comes from. It’s not tomato, and it’s not beef. Butter in buttery pastry is not butter but other fats, with added butter flavour. It might taste like butter, but it might not completely and it might even change your taste and idea of how it should taste all together. I will go into Joanna’s eye-opening book in another posting but you get the idea for now. Today many of the people taste food, but don’t really taste the produce. Their tastes change. A very simple example is when I give someone a glass of raw milk to drink, I am used to it and drink it all the time, but my guests often can’t finish another sip because they find the flavour too ‘animal-like’. Most milk you buy in the supermarket to me tastes like white water, but this is how the people think milk tastes like these days.
Eliza Smith’s Sweet Lamb pie from 1727 is one of those dishes that really show off the old way of spicing food. The flavours come through in layers if you get what I mean. It is not really sweet, but the spices that are used, nutmeg, mace and cloves were considered sweet spices and used as a sweetener. Sugar is added too, but used rather like a spice. In addition to these spices, currants and candied peel are added to bring extra sweetness. Then also sweet potato is added, and artichoke hearts. The 1727 book also mentions that when artichokes aren’t in season, one can use grapes too.
The pie is built with pieces of diced lamb, dusted in the spices, and meatballs made with lamb meat, suet, currants and the same sweet spices with the addition of fresh parsley.
Layers are constructed of lamb, lamb meat balls, sweet potato and artichoke.
When your pot or pie is full, a blade of mace is added and the pie is placed in the oven for just over an hour. Just when you’re ready to serve, a ‘Caudle’ is made, this is a sauce which is added to the pie by pouring it in when you are ready to serve. It is usually there to lift the flavours of the dish. In this case the caudle is made with white wine, lemon juice, a little sugar and a couple of egg yolks.
This sauce gives the dish a little acidic kick and will guaranty you to want to empty the saucepan until the very last drop.
The pie can either be made in a free-standing pie crust like you see in the pictures I took when I was at Food Historian Ivan Day’s house, for a weekend of Georgian cooking last year. A hotpot is however another way of making this pie, this is a closed casserole dish used in the North of England, or you can use a deep oven dish and add a pastry lid, which is what I did the last time I made the pie, and what you can see in the first pictures here.
I made this Sweet Lamb pie not too long ago when we had two chefs coming for dinner, I did not know how they were going to react to the flavours of this dish.
Fortunately my friends are all about good, honest and natural food so they were eager to try. And they enjoyed it, one of the duo even asked me if it was okay to lick his plate and clean out the saucepan of caudle.
I say that’s mission accomplished, don’t you think?
The pie is incredibly flavoursome and eats just wonderful with the different vegetables and meat; the addition of a piece of salty pie pastry is a bonus but not a must if you aren’t up to making your pastry, but please don’t use shop bought pastry… that is just plain evil and doesn’t even contain butter!
I made the pie you see in the pictures above with pastry I had leftover from my recent pastry project… You might have spotted it on instagram.
18th century Sweet Lamb Pie
- 250 g lamb meat from the leg
- 250 g lamb mince (if you buy a leg, you can use the leftover leg to mince)
- 2 large sweet potatoes, parboiled, cut in dice
- 4 small or 2 large artichoke hearts, parboiled, cut in dice
- or when you don’t have artichokes, use a handful of grapes, blanched.
- 1 tsp of ground mace
- 1 tsp of ground nutmeg
- 4 cloves, beaten
- 2 blades of mace
- a generous pinch of good black pepper – or 3 pieces of long pepper, beaten
- 1 tsp each of candied lemon and orange peel, in small cubes
- 50 g of shredded suet
- fresh parsley cut finely, about 1 tbsp
- currants 50 g
For the Caudle
- The juice of 1 lemon
- The same quantity of white wine
- 1 tsp of sugar
- 1 egg yolk
- a little knob of butter
Preheat your oven to 160° C
Beat your spices, but leave the two blades of mace whole.
Dust the meat with half the spices, add the other half to the minced meat.
Make your minced meat balls with the spices, suet, parsley and 2 tbsp of currants.
Have all your components of the dish ready so you can start making the layers.
Place some meat, meatballs, sweet potato and artichoke into your dish or pastry and strew over some currants and candied peel, continue until the pie is full.
Close the pie with pastry, making a hole for steam, or put the lid on and pop in the middle of your oven for 1 hour to 1hr and 15 minutes. This could be longer, it depends on the quality of your meat, decent meat needs less cooking. So try and taste, when you have a pastry cover, user a skewer to prick to see if the meat is tender.
When ready, take out of the oven and make your Caudle.
Bring your wine and lemon juice to a simmer with the sugar, in a separate bowl, have the yolk ready and add the warm caudle like you would for a custard. Finish with a little knob of butter and warm again over the fire.
Pour the caudle into the pie, and serve. The caudle will mix with your pie juices and create a sauce.
If you’re making pastry, this is an easy recipe to try
For the pastry
- 300g plain white flour
- 100g unsalted butter
- 100g shredded suet
- a generous pinch of salt
- 125 ml ice cold water
- 1 egg, beaten
- Combine the flour, butter, suet and salt in a large mixing bowl and use your fingers to rub the butter into the flour. Keep on doing this until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
- Pour in the water and start pressing the liquid into the breadcrumb-like mixture. Be gentle as you must be careful not to overwork the dough.
- When you have created a rough dough, wrap it in cling film and let it rest in the fridge for an hour or more. You can prepare the pastry the day before if you’re feeling organised.
- Use the beaten egg to eggwash the edges of the piedish.
- Take your pastry out of the fridge and place it on a floured work surface. Now roll out the pastry about 1 cm thick and make sure it’s larger than your pie dish.
- Now carefully pick up the pastry and place it over the pie dish. Trim off the edges of the pastry so you get a nice lid. Now crimp the edges by using your thumb or a fork so the pastry lid is closed tightly. Make a hole in the middle so steam can escape.
- Decorate the pie lid if you like and eggwash generously before putting into the oven on one of the lower parts.
Serve with green asparagus if you have them, or green beans, or just as it is.
The pictures below were taken at Ivan Day’s Georgian cooking weekend in the Lake District
19th century Victorian England saw a rapid growth of population and urbanisation stimulated by the Industrial Revolution. The elite became more wealthy and the poor became poorer. Eliza Acton noted in her book published in 1845, that soups or pottage was hardly eaten by the English. The poor didn’t have means to heat up the dish that had sustained them for centuries, and often they didn’t even have access to the ingredients to make a soup. This was an era of slum housing, starvation and disease.
Of course the old lady was illiterate and Soyer realising that he might have sent a useless bit of paper to her, went to see her and found ‘six elderly matrons and an old man holding council together’, trying to make out Soyer’s writings. He then read the recipes to them.
Of soup he says that he finds it is no wonder that people have abandoned this dish as the recipes in most cookery books are complicated and expensive. Many contemporary cookery writers like Mrs Beeton made notes on how to cook economically but showed their ignorance by not grasping the fact that most lower class families were lucky to have some kind of roof over their heads, so a kitchen or fire would most probably been a luxury they could only dream of.
To make this into a main dish for your supper, you can add dumplings, I give you here the recipes as adapted from Soyer’s book The Modern Housewife or Menagerie.
Oxtail soup with dumplings
- 1 oxtail
- 1 carrot
- 1 turnip
- 3 medium sized onions
- 1 stalk of celery
- 2 bay leaf
- a few sprigs of thyme
- a few sprigs of parsley
- 600ml water
- 1tsp of peppercorns, or about 15 corns
- 1tsp salt
- 1 carrot
- 1 stalk of celery
- 1 leek
- 1 turnip
- 220 g plain white flour
- 110 g shredded suet
- 0,5 tsp salt, the same of pepper
- 150-180 ml water
- optional: a tsp of thyme leaves or parsley cut finely
Although I was brought up with a lot of Pagan traditions, living in the city of Antwerp meant that some customs were harder to follow than others. As city dwellers far removed from any orchard or field, we were ignorant to the traditional rites surrounding harvest and sowing time. If there is no nature to honour, no field to gather around the cleansing fire, the feasting quickly becomes part of the past and forgotten.
Industrialisation has brought us wealth and the choice of matching shoes with handbags on a regular tuesday morning. It has brought the technical bits and bobs we all love and loathe. The big world has become smaller and the challenges bigger. The lucky few still live outside of the ever growing concrete cities. We follow their lives on Instagram with a sense of nostalgia, as if we have ever experienced living surrounded by trees and liberating fields and forests, and then tragically lost it.
But that is what it is, we have lost something, and most of us can feel it. There have never been more depressed people, nor have there ever been more people who are unhealthy because of their eating habits, eating too much rather than starving, but malnourished nonetheless. Our daily bread is soiled with adulteration, slowly making us ill. Animals are kept away from fields and live their ever shortening lives on the concrete floors of factory farms to keep the cost of your daily need low, fruit is left on the trees to rot because farmers can’t afford to harvest it, the price a farmer gets for his milk hasn’t gone up in 20 years (based on Belgian farms) so milk is being sprayed onto the soil of the farmland where the cows can no longer roam freely because of bureaucratic nonsense about fertilizer. Small scale generation long fishermen turn their boats into flower beds because the fishing quotas set out to protect fish stocks have made it so that only the big destructive factory fishing vessels can make a living, scooping up the fish only for part of it to be actually consumed and the rest turned into animal feed because their nets just catch too much for it all to be sold and cooked by us humans. The fisherman that could have made his day by catching one Dover Sole, now has to trow it back, while the big monsters take and take and kill the sustainable fishing industry.
We got lost as humans, because we lost part of our human nature.
Let today be an Epiphany.
The Epiphany is the Christian feast that concludes the twelve days of Christmas. In Pre-Christian pagan traditions this marks the time for Wassail. The practice of ‘wassailing’ meant singing and drinking in the apple orchards on the Twelfth Night to awaken the trees, to warn of the evil spirits and pray for a good harvest in the autumn. It could be that the feast of Wassail comes from the Celtic festival called ‘La Mas Ubhail’, the Feast of the Apple. Wassail comes from ‘waes hael’ meaning ‘be thou healthy’ or ‘be whole’, a salutation in Old English. During the feast these words would be addressed to each other and to the oldest apple tree in the orchard.
A drink traditional to Wassail is called ‘Lambswool’ and it is very possible that ‘La Mas Ubhail’ got phonetically Anglicised, to ‘Lamasool’ and later ‘Lambswool’. In historical books we often see that a lot of words were written down phonetically, resulting in a number of different ways to note down one single word.
Robert Herrick, a mid 17th century poet mentioned the custom of Wassailing and Lambswool in his poem about about Twelfth Night, we also get an idea of the recipe too:
Next crown the bowl full With gentle lamb’s wool Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger, With store of ale too; And thus ye must do To make a wassail a swinger
Give then to the king And queen wassailing : And though with ale ye be whet here, Yet part from hence As free from offence As when ye innocent met here.
The drink Lambswool is a mulled ale, poured over hot apple puree, although some people swear by whole apples, or apple pieces cooked in spiced cider or ale. However, as far as a drink goes, you can’t swallow a whole apple, nor can you swallow apple pieces so it is most probable that the recipe containing whole apples is just derived from the recipe made with apple puree. It is possible that the soft puree resembled a lambs fleece to people in the old days, resulting in giving it the name of what they associated it with, lambs wool.
Another reason for thinking that an apple puree was used it that this is the end of the season, so the apples which are left in times before refrigeration and fancy techniques to keep fruit from ripening, would not have been the prettiest of the bunch. An hot and spiced apple puree fortified with ale would be warming on a january evening, and would allow people to prepare it in a kettle rather than an oven which is used for the recipe with whole apples. Remember this is a country dish and ovens were a privilege for the well-to-do. But the sugar in the dish also tells us this wasn’t a drink for the poor, it could have been a special treat from the lord of the manor, or from the farmer to his farm labourers.
Last year I spoke to you about the intriguing Twelfth Cake, a fruit cake elaborately decorated with sugar or wax figurines which was also a privilege for the well-to-do. This cake, which is also mentioned by Herrick in his poem also started of as a humble ‘plum cake’ for the feast of Wassail. City folk picked up on it and adjusted the cake to their festive needs, making it the centrepiece of the table and causing queues in front of bakeries. Because it became popular in the city and with the wealthy, we get our first recipe for it in a 1803 book. A recipe for Lambswool is more difficult to find, as the drink remained in the countryside. So judging from the poem of Robert Herrick, I came up with this recipe for you.
What do you need
- Bramley or Cox stewing apples, 500 gr (peeled and cored about 300 gr)
- water, 100 ml
- sugar 100 gr
- freshly grated nutmeg, 1 teaspoon
- ginger powder, 1 teaspoon
- a good ale, 750 ml
Peel and cut your apples in small pieces and place in a pot along with 100 ml of water and the sugar and spices. Stew until soft and puree so there are no bits left.
When ready to serve, heat up the apple puree and add the ale while whisking. You should get a nice froth while doing so. Serve at ones.
Are you celebrating the Twelfth Night? Or are you having a slice of King cake, galette Du Roi or Driekoningen taart? Or are you wassailing and drinking Lambswool?
|Ancient apple trees in Sussex|
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Many people ask me if I come across weird and unappetising dishes in those old British cookery books I collect and devour.
Of course there are always recipes in historical cookery books which might seem odd to us today, but I am quite sure if someone from the 18th century would come and visit us today, he would go home with as much stories about strange foods to tell his contemporaries.
It’s all a difference in how we look at food, and how we approach it. For example, most of us only ever see meat, packed in plastic, neatly arranged in the supermarket shelves. Small independent butchers are disappearing on our streets and so is our connection to the animal that provides us with our much savoured sausage. Only last year a butcher shop in Suffolk was asked to remove his elaborate game displays from the window so children wouldn’t be upset by the sight of dead animals. Man has become disconnected and doesn’t think past the plastic surrounding the factory farmed meat.
I don’t find eating the head of a pig weird at all, people in the past would have been happy to have it. But today it is seen as ‘medieval’ and not very appetising. I must confess I do not have a desire to eat a pigs head any time soon, but many have told me it is exquisite.
I am talking about a Medieval dish with a name that might sound strange to us today, but only because we have given a different explanation to the word, or the word as evolved. Medieval dishes have always delighted me in their inventiveness, and elegance. A pure kind of cooking, with herbs and spices that give your tastebuds a whole other experience.
In the 14th and 15th century the dish with the name ‘compost’ has been the term for any stewed mixture. A ‘composition’ of ingredients. This could have been meat, vegetables or fruit. The French term ‘compote’ very likely derives from the English ‘compost’ which later only meant stewed fruits. The name ‘Compost’ for a recipe can also be found in Flemish Medieval cookery books.
To anyone, this dish must sound intriguing, especially as one would immediately think this was a recipe for creating the best compost to fertilise your veggie patch with.
But no, the etymology of the word might be obscure, we are not making any kind of compost for the garden today.
This recipe for ‘compost’ I am bringing to you today is made with chicken and green herbs, and spices. Another contemporary recipe is made with chickens and some of its offal. Herbs vary in recipes and another ‘compost’ is made exclusively from root vegetables, dried fruits and spices. They are all very clean and pure dishes.
Chicken was always a noble type of meat on a banquet. It was considered more economical if a chicken was kept for her eggs. Killing off a chicken meant killing of your egg factory so chicken would be on the tables of those who could miss a bird, the elite.
This dish is fantastic, it is so pure and simple, it is the kind of dish that just makes my heart skip a beat when I first have a little taste. The dish eats like a soup, and I like to add a nice slice of stale sourdough bread as a ‘sup’ – which was in the past frequently added to thicken the soup and give more substance. This ‘sup’ is also what gave us the term ‘supper’ later on in history. A ‘sup’ could also have been a piece of cake soaked in booze or sauce, the Italian word for trifle ‘Zuppa Inglese’ still gives shows us the link with the ‘sup’.
To make it into an evening meal I added some new potatoes. This of course not ver Medieval as the potato was not known in the Middle Ages, but it is a lovely addition to this dish.
|New potatoes are a lovely addition to make it into a main dish, but not very Medieval.|
Original recipe from A Noble Boke off Cookry (England, 1468)
I brown my chicken before stewing, this isn’t done in the original Medieval recipe, but I find it improves the flavour and the look of the dish, I leave my chicken whole, but you can cut it in half if you prefer.
It might be so that the Medieval cook also browned the chicken, but recipes of that period weren’t complete as they were more often just aide-memoirs rather than clear instructions.
What do you need – serves 4 or 2 very hungry people with leftovers, it is very good the next day.
- 1 large hen, free range (please, if you can)
- 1 stalk of leek, chopped
- a bunch of parsley
- a bunch of sage
- a teaspoon of cinnamon, and one of ginger
- two large tablespoons of honey
- optional, some pieces of bacon fat, for flavour
- optional, stale bread, only decent sourdough or other artisan bread
Preheat your oven to 160°C, you can do this just on the hob too, I just prefer to use the oven.
Have a big pot ready, large enough so you can cover the whole chicken with water, but small enough so it fits snugly.
In a frying pan, melt a generous knob of butter and brown your chicken slightly on each side. You just want some color, no crust or full browning. A medium flame on the hob is fine for this.
Place half the herbs and leek on the base of your pot, place your chicken on top and add the rest of the herbs.
Smear your chicken with the honey, doesn’t have to be neat.
Fill the pot with water so the chicken is completely covered, add the spices and give it a stir.
Bring to the boil and let it boil for 5-10 minutes without the lid.
Close the lid and transfer to the oven (or leave on the hob on a small flame) for 45 minutes – 1 hour. Cooking time depends on the size of your chicken, and the quality, a free range slowly grown bird cooks faster than a factory farmed chick. The meat should just not be falling of the bone, so keep an eye on it on those last 15 minutes.
Strain your broth using a colander or something similar, and take out your herbs and veg.
Then, take the meat of the bones and place in the broth. Place some or all of the herbs and veg back into the broth if you like, I do, as I like to eat the whole thing.
Have warmed soup plates ready and place a piece of bread in each of them, pour over the broth and give everyone some meat from the breast and some from the legs.
Serving tip: some nice cooked new potatoes work well to make this a main dish. It is very strengthening and ideal for winter, or on chilly summer evenings. It is also very nurturing when you are unwell.